The Attack on Ukraine: Domestic and International Pressures on America’s Response

CSPS Fellow Tim Bynion discusses the domestic and international pressures that shape President Biden’s response to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War.

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world and led to condemnation from across the political spectrum.  Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked attack on a neighboring country led to near unanimous condemnation from Western countries, and his actions will likely further isolate Russia within the international community.  Despite this international backlash, Russia continues its assault all across Ukraine, which means many are now looking to the United States and President Biden in his position as “leader of the free world” to see what steps the U.S. and its NATO allies will take next.  Since international politics is a two-level game, it is necessary to examine the domestic political restraints on Biden’s actions as well as his views on America’s position in the international community to understand how the U.S. will react to the invasion in the weeks to come.  Specifically, Biden’s efforts to rebrand the U.S. as a defender of global democracy are severely hampered by an American public seemingly uninterested in reclaiming that title.   

On the domestic side, President Biden suffers from lackluster approval ratings from the American public.  Beginning around late August 2021, more Americans indicate disapproval than approval of Biden’s job as President, with approximately 54% of Americans disapproving of his administration today.  Therefore, Biden’s actions toward Russia should be examined in the context of a leader attempting to bolster his and his party’s image leading up to the midterm elections in November 2022.  Adopting a strong stance against Russia could be politically beneficial for the President, as 85% of Americans view Russia unfavorably, and this disdain is bipartisan, with 88% of both Democrats and Republicans holding that view.  Despite partisan polarization across most issues in American politics today, Democrats and Republicans also feel similarly about how the U.S. should respond to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.  Among both Democrats and Republicans, 84% support increased sanctions on Russia, but partisans draw the line at direct military intervention, with 56% in each party opposed.  To date, President Biden’s actions align with public opinion, as he implemented economic sanctions while emphatically stating that American troops will not be sent to Ukraine.  Absent a direct attack on the U.S., it remains unlikely that Americans’ opinions on the use of military force will change regardless of how the situation in Ukraine unfolds.  Therefore, we should not expect a major change in course from the Biden administration.

That being said, we should also remain cognizant of the international pressures on the U.S. to counter Russia’s aggression and how Biden may perceive these pressures.  Throughout his campaign for president and subsequent time in office, President Biden emphasized the U.S. commitment to NATO in the wake of former President Trump’s repeated criticisms of the long-standing military alliance.  Biden routinely states that he sees NATO as “critically important for U.S. interests” and views Article 5 as a “sacred obligation.”  Since Ukraine is not yet a NATO member despite its efforts to join the alliance, the U.S. is not obligated to come to its defense.  Yet, the invasion raises larger questions about the level of Russian aggression that the U.S. will allow without increased repercussions.  Biden sees strong U.S. leadership as essential to protecting freedom, democracy, and human rights around the world from authoritarian regimes like Russia, and the attack on Ukraine poses the greatest test of his presidency to that commitment.  However, domestic political pressures may stand in tension with Biden’s stated commitments to protecting democracy outside of U.S. borders, and his administration’s actions in the coming weeks will shape how both Americans and the international community perceive his priorities. 

In summary, those who wish to understand how the Biden administration is approaching the attack on Ukraine need to consider both the domestic and international pressures that shape the President’s decision making.  While economic sanctions do not appear to be slowing Russia’s attacks on the Ukrainian people, Biden has few other policy options that are acceptable to the American public.  Unless the ramifications of the invasion begin to affect Americans’ everyday lives more directly, we should not expect a major shift in public opinion.  What remains to be seen is how exactly this crisis will impact Biden’s efforts to rebrand the U.S. as the world’s foremost promoter of freedom and democracy.  Images of unnecessary war and suffering across Ukraine with little direct international intervention may do lasting damage to these efforts.   


Tim Bynion is a PhD student in Political Science at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, majoring in American Government and International Relations.  He holds a B.S. in Political Science from Towson University.  His research interests include the domestic sources of American foreign policy, specifically issues of public opinion and national identity. 

Photo can be found here.